The saving of ‘Sanditon’ (and why period dramas like ‘Bridgerton’ are having a moment)

If you’re not a British period drama addict like I am, the recent premiere of Sanditon’s second season may not immediately strike you as a noteworthy event. 

The series is set in a British seaside town and is inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name. However, the second season of this series is significant, because it originally wasn’t supposed to happen. 

The show’s first season ended on a rather depressing cliffhanger, and then the show was promptly canceled by British network ITV. Shows get canceled all the time, of course, but Sanditon fans desperately wanted more and they refused to accept that this was truly the end of the story. Enthusiastic campaigning, an active social media presence, and even the commissioning of Sanditon-themed sand art (yes, really) followed, and especially after the show became a hit on U.S. broadcaster PBS, the Sanditon showrunners announced not one but two more seasons would be filmed. 

Not all fans get to receive this kind of closure when a show they love is canceled, and it’s been a true delight to watch more episodes of a show I’d doubted would never return. It’s true that the show is missing a smidge of its original magic, thanks to the fact its brooding leading man Sidney Parker (played by Theo James) opted not to return, but it’s good to see that other characters will still be able to find their happily ever after. 

And Sanditon certainly isn’t the only period drama making headlines of late. Historical costume dramas are definitely having a moment, thanks to the likes of Downton Abbey (which is celebrating its 12th anniversary this year and another movie) and more recently Netflix’s slightly more scandalous Bridgerton

Although Bridgerton isn’t the sort of show you gather the whole family around the TV to watch, it’s incredibly addictive. Based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn, the adaptation is produced by entertainment powerhouse Shonda Rhimes. 

One of the best things about Bridgerton is that while the plot itself is a fairly standard affair – people falling in love in Regency era Britain and trying to avoid inciting gossip – the diverse cast makes it unique and exciting. Historically, period dramas have been filled almost exclusively with white actors, and it’s nice to see shows like Bridgerton challenge this. 

Bridgerton and Sanditon fall into a category I’d call “historical fantasy.” Some films and TV series strive for strict historical accuracy in terms of plot, costuming, setting, social rules and mannerisms, etc., and that attention to detail is admirable. It feels as if you, the viewer, is being given a peek into the past, inviting you to imagine what life was really like for people who lived long ago. 

However, it’s also fun to set some of that realism aside sometimes and just enjoy a lavish story that’s more fairy tale than history. For example, Bridgerton’s costumes and music have a far more modern flair than what was actually used during the historical period, but I don’t really mind that. There’s a place for both styles in the period drama genre, although you’ll find some healthy debate in fan communities about how fast and loose storytellers should play with history. (As long as storytellers aren’t claiming to make a historically accurate retelling, I say be as creative as you want.)

Finally, my favorite period drama – and overall all-time favorite TV series – Downton Abbey returns to the big screen once again in a few short weeks with a second movie, A New Era.

It could be argued that Downton Abbey the series didn’t really need another movie – the series ended on a nice note, and the 2019 movie was a delightful cherry on top, giving pretty much every single character a perfectly happy ending. 

Still, I’m thrilled to return to Downton once again, and I don’t really need the movie to be groundbreaking or even necessarily thrilling in order to have a good time at the movies. For me, period dramas are like a warm and cozy cup of tea; I enjoy stories that challenge me and make me think – like Hitchcock or Moon Knight or The Batman – but sometimes it’s comforting to watch a period drama where I know I’ll be watching a happily ever after. 

I’m excited that shows like Downton Abbey and Bridgerton are inspiring more people to discover the period drama genre, when maybe they would have dismissed it as silly or stodgy. If you’re curious about the genre but have never delved into period dramas before, I’d say Downton Abbey is a great place to start. 

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